Must Evangelicals Be Conservatives?
by Laurence M. Vance
by Laurence M. Vance
Because I am a conservative evangelical, but not an evangelical conservative, I was intrigued by the title of a new book I saw recently on display in the book exhibit hall at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature: How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative (Zondervan, 2008). Did the author mean conservative in the theological sense or the political sense? Since one of my primary interests is the intersection of religion with politics and economics, I could almost hear the book begging for a review. I was both pleasantly surprised and tremendously disappointed.
It turns out that the author (Roger Olson, a professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University) means conservative in both the theological and political senses. Therefore, because I am a conservative evangelical, I reject his theological proposals. However, this does not mean that because I am not an evangelical conservative that I accept all of his political proposals.
How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative contains twelve chapters, only three of which concern conservatism in the political sense. In two of these three chapters, Olson makes some very good points, but in the third — the chapter that deals with political economy — he is not just bad, he is horrible.
In chapter three, "Celebrating America without Nationalism," Olson correctly recognizes two things:
Especially since World War II evangelical Christians in America have tended to become increasingly nationalistic.
There is probably no more patriotic slice of the American population than evangelical Christians.
He faults Christians for failing "to observe the difference between love of country and slavish agreement with or obedience to the state and government." He maintains that "Conservative Christians also miss the boat when they elevate America to the status of a near idol by engaging in worship that blends God and country as if the two are inextricably linked together." I like his suggestion that "American flags should be removed from Christian worship spaces so that nobody confuses the worship of God with veneration of nation."
In chapter seven, "Transforming Culture without Domination," Olson distances himself from the Religious Right:
Unlike affiliates of the Religious Right I do not see any New Testament mandate for Christians to engage in political activism to control the behavior of unbelievers so that it conforms to specifically Christian ethics. Where in the New Testament does Jesus or any apostle even suggest that Christians should get out and try to transform the cultures they live in by taking control of governments to legislate Christian beliefs and values? Did the earliest Christians go around the Roman empire posting the Ten Commandments in public places? Did they run for political office or seek political appointment primarily to take over the culture for Christ? Of course not — and nobody argues that they did. So why do many conservative evangelicals today do such things while claiming to be New Testament Christians? And do all New Testament Christians do such things?
I might add that it is inconceivable that the early Christians allowed their churches to function as recruiting centers for the Roman army. Olson shows great biblical insight in this chapter. It's too bad he completely departs from this in the following chapter.
In chapter eight, "Redistributing Wealth without Socialism," Olson preaches the gospel of social-welfare through government intervention and redistribution of wealth. From start to finish, this is a horrible chapter — even worse than the worst theological chapter. Reading this chapter is like reading Sojourners or a book by Jim Wallis. Olson believes that "evangelical Christianity need not be tied to the free market, free enterprise system and especially not to laissez-faire capitalism (government's ‘hands off' approach to the economy)." Not only does he maintain that the Bible "nowhere mentions capitalism" (true if one is only looking for the term itself), but also "anything associated with it." This is all nonsense, of course. For a biblical defense of "laissez-faire capitalism" see my lecture "The Myth of the Just Price."
Olson chooses his words carefully. He doesn't advocate socialism per se (the public ownership of the means of production), but believes that "some modified form of democratic capitalism works best." Olson is trying to take a middle-of-the-road approach, but as Ludwig von Mises addressed the University Club in New York in 1950, such a policy always leads to socialism. As Mises explains in his magnum opus, Human Action:
All varieties of interference with the market phenomena not only fail to achieve the ends aimed at by their authors and supporters, but bring about a state of affairs which — from the point of view of their authors' and advocates' valuations — is less desirable than the previous state of affairs which they were designed to alter. If one wants to correct their manifest unsuitableness and preposterousness by supplementing the first acts of intervention with more and more of such acts, one must go farther and farther until the market economy has been entirely destroyed and socialism has been substituted for it.
Even worse than Olson's notion that "capitalism unchecked by strong government regulation of businesses to prevent monopolies and other abuses tends toward injustice" is his solution: "One of the government's functions should be to redistribute wealth to balance the inequities that tend to appear in any capitalist system." Olson asks: "How should wealth be redistributed without socialism?" But before one has time to yell: "It can't," he answers his own question: "By means of a highly graduated income tax combined with government entitlement programs focused on job training and placement, free day care for children of the working poor, and universal health coverage for every American." Elsewhere he advocates further redistribution through education, direct aid to children, and "other forms of welfare."
Olson rejects the arguments of those who think "redistribution of wealth should be strictly voluntary." He singles out for special criticism Marvin Olasky, the editor of World magazine and author of The Tragedy of American Compassion and Renewing American Compassion. (Olson wrongly refers to Olasky's latter book as Renewing of American Compassion.) What really galls Olson is that private, non-profit welfare programs might limit their help "to people of a certain race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or religion." I don't think this would happen, but so what if it did. We must remember that a free society includes the freedom to discriminate. The society advocated by Olson is not based on freedom at all; it is based on Marx's Communist Manifesto, which states that one of the conditions necessary for the transition from a capitalist to a communist society, is "a heavy progressive or graduated income tax."
Olson believes that government entitlement programs financed by a highly graduated income tax are "not unreasonable or unchristian policies." In fact: "They accord well with Scripture's overt concern for the poor and oppressed." "Redistribution of wealth is biblical," says Olson. Christians should not feel bad about espousing government theft of resources because "no biblical or rational conflict confronts the evangelical Christian who wants to advocate for the poor, including government-sponsored redistribution of wealth, in spite of all the fussing and fuming of some conservative evangelicals who consider such policies socialistic."
But what about the commandment: "Thou shalt not steal" (Exodus 20:15)? Olson doesn't apply this to the government because "the idea that taxes are a form of government theft comes from the philosophy of secular thinkers like Robert Nozick of Harvard University."
Olson's conclusion is inescapable: stealing is okay if the government does it. This is just like concluding that killing in an aggressive war is not murder if the government says to do it. This thought reminds me of what is missing in his book.
What is missing in How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative is a chapter on "Supporting Defense without Militarism." This book would have been the perfect place to present the evangelical case against Bush's war of aggression and for a sane U.S. foreign policy. Instead, we have things that are not as effective like the recent petition "calling for the National Association of Evangelicals to a public declaration of repentance and commitment to restoration":
The last eight years of leadership in the American political realm has been guided by an administration that early in its inception was lauded as Christian. It is an undisputed fact that not only did the evangelical community play a huge role in electing George Bush to office, but many, including the Washington Times Bill Sammon proclaimed him the Evangelical President. Yet as the years passed, the lies and deceptions surfaced and the hallelujahs and amen's have silently died down as the evangelical community slowly crept away distancing itself from the monster it helped create. Rather than admit self-deception, or worse, complicity it seems organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals have chose to ignore the human rights abuses, stolen liberties, constitutional breaches and crimes the Bush Administration have committed. If this organization is truly representative of the Christian community why have they refused the partial responsibility they shoulder by supporting such atrocities?
In light of the recently released Senate Armed Services Committee report implicating members of the Bush cabinet in war crimes it seems public rebuke and repentance is in order. Just as we cannot in good conscience turn away from the facts that the American war machine has been kidnapping foreign nationals and holding them in secret prisons, waging illegal wars based on deception and misinformation, engaging in torture, human rights abuses, war profiteering and a multitude of other unchristian practices neither can we let the leaders of the Evangelical communities ignore their responsibility in putting this machination in action through aggressive political support. While we acknowledge that the NAE condemned the use of torture, this small acknowledgment did little to reverse the damage done to the testimony of Jesus Christ and the integrity of the American Church.
It is therefore this 21st day of Dec 2008 declared that those who are represented by the evangelical view of the Christian faith demand a day of public fasting, prayer and repentance be decided by the National Association of Evangelicals for the failure to be the voice of conscience to the Government whom they so vehemently supported and resolve to a plan of action to correct the injustices committed by the Bush administration while under the guise of being ruled by Christian principals and law. Let us truly become a light set upon a hill.
Olson would have accomplished much more with his book had he included something like this in place of his attack on capitalism.
Although I had high hopes for this book, I'm afraid I can only recommend the two chapters that relate to politics. Christians can be theologically conservative and yet at the same time reject the Republican Party, the Religious Right, and many aspects of the conservative movement. In How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative, Roger Olson rightly rejects these things, but because he advocates socialism (while eschewing the term) and a watered-down, effeminate, politically-correct evangelicalism, the book on being evangelical without being conservative remains to be written.
January 5, 2009
Laurence M. Vance [send him mail] writes from Pensacola, FL. His latest book is a new and greatly expanded edition of Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State. Visit his website.
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